Data from the Journal of Medical Internet Research indicates 40 percent of Americans search online for tips on weight loss and exercise–not a surprising number given that more than 33 percent of individuals in the nation are overweight or obese.
But when it comes to hunting down the best tips and tricks for weight loss on the Internet, trusting the first page of your search results might land you in some trouble. According to research from a team at Jackson State University, the majority of links on the first page of a Google search for weight loss led consumers to unreliable sources and commercial websites that market unrealistic weight-loss products and techniques.
This is particularly problematic since Internet users generally only click on the first results they see, assuming those are the most popular–and thus most reliable–places to find what they are looking for.
“I’ve watched my family and friends seek out health information, and so often I think, ‘Where do they get that stuff?’” study author François Modave told the Health Behavior News Service, part of the Center for Advancing Health. “Since the first links that appear on an Internet search, regardless of the topic, receive nearly 90 percent of all clicks, this steers consumers to substandard information. Federal agencies, academic institutions and medical organizations need to work a lot harder at search engine optimization to get their links on top of searches,” Modave added. “Consumers need to be more critical when reading online. Ideally, they could read original studies from which many stories are written but, of course, that’s not realistic for most people.”
To test the reliability of the most popular search results, Modave and his team evaluated 103 top search websites for queries specific to weight loss. Those websites were then scored based on how the content related to available evidence-based guidelines for weight loss. Medical, government and university sites ranked highest, along with blogs; however, less than a fifth of websites scored better than 50 percent.
“When looking exclusively at the key dimensions of the global quality score, i.e., nutrition, physical activity and behavioral strategies, we observed that less than a fifth of websites scored over 50 percent,” Modave said. “We also observed that no page covered all the dimensions the key ones as well as surgical and pharmacotherapeutic options all at once.”
He added that the current way the Internet generates search results makes it difficult to access the correct information from research studies and respectable authorities. Search results are generated by Internet traffic, which is generated through a complex system of search engine optimization (SEO) and internal/external hyperlinking. Universities and other reputable sources aren’t typically worried about generating Internet traffic, so these websites may not be the strongest when it comes to things that boost search ratings.
“A major challenge for health professionals is ensuring that the public is accessing reputable information,” said David C. Clarke, PhD, of Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia. “Scientific evidence is generally considered the best knowledge but it can be challenging to find, given the way the Internet works and the manner in which people use it. It is the Wild West in terms of information.”
Caroline Apovian, director of the Nutrition and Weight Management Center at Boston University Medical Center, who was not involved in the study, told Live Science the best way to handle weight loss tips is to check the source. While weight loss success stories are helpful to boost morale, you want to make sure the diet and exercise plans you follow come from certified professionals or organizations.